By E.J. Kessler

Published March 18, 2005, issue of March 18, 2005.
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Chairmen’s Corner: Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean plied their trade with pro-Israel activists this week, speaking for 20 minutes apiece March 14 in Washington at a gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s leadership network, a group of heavy hitters.

The event wasn’t open to the press, but our spies were there. As it happens, our Democratic spy took better notes, so of necessity we’ll start with the doctor from Vermont.

“We believe in the Democratic Party that we ought to have a strong, robust foreign policy; that American influence and power ought to be used appropriately, both in furthering the interests of the United States and furthering the interests of our allies,” said Dean, who retains a bit of a deficit with some Aipac folks on account of some primary-era sparring with home-turf hero, Senator Joseph Lieberman. Asserting that “the greatest threat that the world faces today comes from Islamic terrorists,” the chairman averred, in a nice Liebermanian flourish, that “a strong Israel is an essential part of the ability of the United States to build democracy everywhere in the world.”

On Middle East peace, Dean said that Israeli Prime Minister Sharon “has put himself at great political risk, making a decision to withdraw from Gaza,” and that “it is time for the other side to begin to show that they are willing to take great political risks.”

He said that aid to the Palestinians “must be dependent on getting to the people it is intended to help and not to more corruption and more bureaucracy in the territories.”

“Incitement of violence and hatred must be an issue that we confront, and I do not speak simply of the textbooks that are found in Palestinian schools,” Dean said. “I speak about what Saudi Arabia is doing around the world to finance the teaching of hatred of Americans, Christians, Jews and moderate Muslims. We need to confront that, and we need to confront it boldly because there is a long-term danger in what the Saudis are using our oil money for.”

Reprising a theme that he first took up at an Aipac policy conference in 2003, Dean charged that Iran “right now is potentially the most dangerous nation on the face of the earth. Should they get the atomic bomb, that presents an enormous danger; not simply to Israel, but to the United States, as well. We cannot permit Iran to possess nuclear weapons, and we need to do everything we can to stop that.”

Protesting that “I didn’t come here to criticize the president,” Dean could not help himself, saying he was “disappointed that it has taken us five years to do what should have been done immediately. I think Iran — which clearly funds terrorism everywhere, clearly has blood on its hands — not just of Israelis, but also of Americans — needs to be dealt with in a way that makes it very clear what our intentions are. At the end of the day, the United States must make it clear that we will not permit Iran to possess nuclear weapons, and that is a bright line. Let them not put one toe across that bright line.”

During a question-and-answer period, Dean was asked about the idea of “evenhandedness” in Middle East negotiations — an allusion to comments that tripped him up during his presidential campaign.

“We will approach the bargaining table as an ally of Israel,” he said.

Asked about the Jewish vote, he said: “The first thing we need to do, the American Jewish community, is not just about Israel, although it has a lot to do with Israel. It’s about making sure that the American people understand that we’re willing to do what has to be done to defend ourselves and our allies and to defend democracy everywhere in the world. But after that, even to this day, the American Jewish community is going to support folks who think we ought to teach creationism in our schools? They’re going to support people whose allies believe this is a Christian nation? That is a critical issue. We need to be strong on defense, but then we need to make sure that American Jews feel like they are comfortable being American Jews.”

Mehlman, for his part, spoke about his Jewish upbringing, calling himself a “Sharansky Republican,” in a reference to the refusenik hero whose book on democracy has been read by the president. He talked a lot about terrorism (“Many criticized Sharon for not talking to Arafat — including Howard Dean,” he said), the United Nations (demanding reform), the No Child Left Behind Act and Social Security (“Our mission is reshaped government for a changing time”). He quibbled with what exit polls reported was the GOP’s share of the 2004 Jewish vote, about 25%. “He suggested that some of the national polling overstated [the Democratic share] because it overemphasized New York and California,” a source said. Mehlman also likened what he called the “moral clarity” of President Bush’s foreign policy stances to those of President Reagan, saying that both men were disparaged for being provocative by the Europeans and left-wing Democrats, but both ended up enlarging freedom. “Wasn’t demanding that Gorbachev ‘Tear down this wall!’ a progressive approach?” he asked rhetorically.

Mehlman and Dean will speak to Aipac again at its policy conference this May.

* * *

Budget Battle: The budget battle coming to a head in Congress features two Jewish lawmakers waging war in some interesting turnabout of their parties’ stereotypical roles.

Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat sometimes mentioned as a potential 2008 presidential hopeful, is spearheading a push for so-called pay-as-you-go rules, a budget-hawk measure that would mandate spending cuts to offset any new tax cuts.

Meanwhile Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, is urging the Senate to restore community development block grants, a program aiding cities that President Bush proposed to slash drastically in the budget he sent to Capitol Hill.

The block-grant program “is the centerpiece of the federal government’s effort to help states and localities meet the needs of low-income communities,” Coleman wrote in a letter to Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, and to ranking member Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat. The letter was signed by 56 of his colleagues. Coleman said in the letter that the grants fund “vital housing rehabilitation, supportive services, public improvements and economic development projects in communities across the nation.”

The federal budget, which went into surplus under President Clinton, plunged into deficit under Bush in a $5 trillion turnabout that economic prognosticators say is a big threat to the economy.

“Our fiscal prospects are, in my judgment, a significant obstacle to long-term stability,” Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said last week in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations.

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